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Corruption in International Relations



LONDON-- That President Bill Clinton, commander-in-chief of the world's one remaining superpower, might dare to risk his country's self- interest in financial and political prudence by personally wooing monetary support for his re-election bid from Chinese, Thai and Indonesian businessmen and women, all with close ties to their governments, is by the yardstick of common probity boggling to the imagination.

This is the age of what Moises Naim has called "corruption eruption" that has shaken "every region regardless of cultural background or Gross National Product." The last eighteen months have seen the fall of the Secretary-General of NATO over corruption allegations, indictments for corruption of one-third of India's cabinet, graft charges against Italy's most prominent post-war prime ministers and two former South Korean presidents; parliamentary investigations into financial abuses by the heads of government of Colombia, Pakistan and Turkey, graft at high levels of government in Japan, not to mention the allegations of massive corruption against the former Mexican president, his brother and the assistance of Citibank in laundering the spoils. As Robert Leiken observes in a fascinating article in Foreign Policy, "The post-Cold War period exhibits the disillusionment and cynicism that result when transcendent events are followed by shabby anti-climaxes or worse. After the Glorious Revolution, Walpole's rotten boroughs; after Lincoln, the Gilded Age; after Wilson's Fourteen Points, the Teapot Dome Scandal; after the fall of thr Berlin wall, this."

We appear to be surrounded and beseiged by it. Organized international crime has mushroomed the last 30 years, partly under the influence of the drug trade and the inept inability of western politicians in consumer nations to face up to the fact that the most effective way to target the cartels is to decriminalize their product. Illicit traffic in nuclear materials threaten our very existence, raising the stakes in common criminality to unheard of proportions. Yet the decision to expand NATO and thus probably forsake the Russian ratification of the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty will put Russia's nuclear bomb making factories back in business and with it the careless stockpiling of even more plutonium. The arms trade has become like a chaotic fungus reaching into every nook and cranny. A judicial inquiry last year showed how British government ministers connived to turn a blind eye to the arming of Saddam Hussein and there are suggestions, from evidence as diverse as the murder of a leading socialist politician in Belgium to the murder of a young British investigative reporter at work in Chile, that some European arms companies, in the urge to clinch the deal, don't even draw the line at homicide. In Sweden, where probity is the most prized of all virtues, a former senior executive of the Swedish arms manufacturer, Bofors, tells a national daily that he can't sleep at night for thinking there is some connection between the big bribes paid by his company in India and the murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme.

The tide is sweeping in but there are those with their brooms trying with some success to sweep it out. In India the voters punished Prime Minister P. Narasimha Rao's tainted government with a crushing defeat last year and in Mexico President Ernesto Zedillo is hammering away at both bribery and drug barons. Even in Colombia, although allegations of having received drug money for his election campaign still hang over President Ernesto Samper, there is no doubt that police and justice officials are prosecuting other malefactors with a commendable earnestness. In Brazil popular agitation pushed parliament to depose the totally crooked president, Fernando Collor de Mello.

Was there ever a golden age? In 1788 Edmund Burke attacked the colonial administrator of Bengal, Warren Hastings: "Bribery, filthy hands, a chief governor of a great empire receiving bribes from poor, miserable, indigent people, this is what makes government itself base, contemptible and odious in the eyes of mankind." In early modern Europe the sale of office was defended on the grounds of efficiency by Montesquieu and Bentham. But if there was never a golden age there was much less corruption in quantity terms and it was less pervasive. The sums involved were not sufficient to "buy" a whole government. It rarely corrupted the integrity of a government in its foreign dealings--the charge that Mr. Clinton is now having to counter.

Nevertheless, in many important ways, America has a cleaner slate than most. In the U.S. it is illegal to use bribes in market transactions abroad. But in Germany, as in much of Europe, if a German bribes a foreign government official he can claim it as a tax reduction. In Britain off-shore islands thrive on legal tax-rvasion and nameplate addresses for aema sellers and such like.

It is simplistic to blame this on the capitalist system's greed, or even Thatcherite-Reaganite liberalization. A majority of capitalists are not seriously corrupt. But to those that are governments too often turn a blind eye because it is convenient to do so. It is governments that have to set the standard. Voters as far apart as India, Belgium and Brazil have made that sentiment clear. In America, regrettably, they have missed their chance, for now at least.


March 5, 1997, LONDON

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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